INTERVIEW

“I wanted people to call me Zola Jesus so that they’d stop talking to me.”

zolajesus

On stage, Nika Roza Danilova, perhaps better known as Zola Jesus, is timid and restrained. Draped in black from the cape-like shrug hanging around her shoulders to the hardy boots upon her feet, she hunches over her mic with her bright blonde tresses covering most of her face. Her two accomplices, Rory Kane and Alex DeGroot are steadfast behind her on keys and samples, respectively, as she clomps around modestly, directing her spine-chilling croons towards the floor or back wall before pouring a glass of water over her head, brushing her hair back and thanking the crowd ahead of walking off. This is when we find her backstage, collapsed in a big, dark swivel chair, just a little damp but with a big smile on her face.

The Wisconsin girl, who reaches a little over five foot, may exude a sinister and somewhat mysterious air live, but in person she’s your average, bubbly 21-year-old who had a crap time in school and is ecstatic to be finally coming into her own. She explains that high school was a matter of waiting out the years and plundering through, which is why she coined the alias Zola Jesus for herself.

“The name I developed before I started high school,” she says. “I made it up for myself and wanted people to call me that so that they would stop talking to me because I didn’t get along with anyone in school. We didn’t have anything in common ever, so I just tried to alienate myself.”

Nika’s fight against the small farming town of Merrill, WI, began with opera singing lessons at the age of ten. “I just wanted to be a really good singer,” she justifies “to the point of being willing to be in an opera, because pop singers aren’t really good singers. When you think of someone that is the best at what they’re doing… it takes classical training to learn how to sing perfectly, whereas pop singers are really nasal. I felt like studying opera was the most extreme way to be a good singer.”

Despite studying it for ten years on and off, Nika never performed in an opera. “I would make up my own operas,” she says “but there were never really any opportunities to be in them where I lived. The arts weren’t really big there.”

As well as channelling opera into her compositions from a young age, Nika also became interested in more avant-garde music. “I liked pop music and soul in the beginning,” she states “but then I grew up with punk and from there I started discovering a lot of other experimental music through my older brother. Bands like The Residents and Throbbing Gristle; that cultivated me to be this person interested in the darker side of things.” Film and literature also affected her work. “I like John Carpenter [the director] and things like that. I like sci-fi and Philip K Dick the author, plus living in the country. Those are my influences,” she affirms matter-of-factly.

As she speaks Nika is concise, choosing her words carefully so as not to waste one more than is necessary to convey her point. Her music follows in a similar vein in that her songs are very clear cut, which is easily picked up on in her fourth album ‘Stridulum II’ – a reissue of her ‘Stridulum’ EP.

Album opener ‘I Can’t Stand’ is a story of heartache from the perspective of the other lover. “It’s not easy to let it all go, but once in a while it’s good for your soul so don’t let it get you down,” she drones over a slow, minimal beat. Current single ‘Night’ is about being safe together at the end of the night; the eerie echoes put to a choppy, tinny beat and little else, but when it comes to Nika’s darkly atmospheric sounds she doesn’t need anything more to help her create such a gut-wrenching impact. ‘Manifest Destiny’ probably has the most going on of the whole album, with layers of industrial synths, clattering samples and belting vocals, which really come into their own as Nika howls agonizingly about being alienated from home and searching for the one.

“I feel that when I’m up there I’m telling a story or having something to say,” she describes of her feelings on stage. “So when I say ‘you’ or ‘me’ it’s always me and I’m talking to the person in front of me. Every song has a meaning and purpose and I feel that what I sing needs no explanation.”

Up until this summer Nika had been studying Philosophy and French at university, so even though she’s on her fourth LP, this is the first time she’s toured Europe because she didn’t want to defer. “I like to finish what I start,” she pronounces “and I feel that if I’d have taken a break I would never have gone back.” As well as dealing with her final exams, she also had to juggle writing and recording ‘Stridulum II’ to a strict deadline.

“I had one week to write this record,” she beams, proud of the accomplishment. “I was on a deadline because they [US label Sacred Bones] needed it in time for whatever reason, and it was my exam week so I wrote it in between my exams. Plus, I was leaving for Los Angeles – that’s where my husband lives – so I had to have it done before I left.” And with the help of DeGroot the two of them managed to get it recorded in time.

“[DeGroot] recorded my vocals in a spare bedroom in the place I lived and he mixed it for me so it sounded a little higher quality,” she explains. “So it’s cleaner, absolutely, that was my intention. I went in to make a clean sounding record and I guess you can do it yourself, I didn’t know that.”

Once the shy, awkward kid who didn’t want anyone to talk to her, with self-confessed anxiety issues, Zola Jesus is finally blossoming into an enigmatic flower, albeit a shadowy one, with the guts to stand on stage and tell everyone how she sees things. Soon she’ll be finishing up her month-long European tour before heading back to stake her ground in the US, but that doesn’t mean music is earning her keep yet. “Noooo, never,” she intones. “But I don’t have a day job, so my husband works and buys groceries,” she utters coyly. Which is probably why she has time, on top of her solo project, to collaborate with Kane on his electro-synth fusions when she can. “We both like to indulge in R&B music like Rihanna and stuff like that,” she chirrups. “So we get together and make those kinds of songs; very formulaic pop songs with auto-tuning.” Or she links up with This Song is a Mess But So Am I’s Freddy Ruppert and Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu via email to work on their Former Ghosts endeavour, which gets its official airing this November. The UK tour will be the first time the three have ever played in the same room together. “It’s gonna be a Former Ghosts, Zola Jesus, Xiu Xiu tour,” clarifies Nika “and it’s gonna be madness.”

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